Inside Higher Ed: The Education/Religion Connection

By Scott Jaschik, for Inside Higher Ed

August 8, 2011

For years, a commonly held belief has been that more educated Americans are less likely to embrace religion. But an article forthcoming (abstract available here) in Review of Religious Research suggests that the relationship between education and faith is more nuanced, and that more education has a negative impact only on certain religious questions, not on all of them.

Some religious beliefs and practices – including belief in God and regular prayer – increase with years of education, the research found.

The research was done by Philip Schwadel, associate professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He used data from the General Social Survey, which has information about the educational attainment of Americans, along with their affiliations and their views on a variety of religious questions.

Professor Schwadel opens his paper by noting how his work runs directly counter to conventional wisdom: “I challenge scholarship which contends that increases in education uniformly lead to declines in religious participation, belief, and affiliation. I argue that education influences strategies of action, and these strategies of action are relevant to some religious beliefs and activities but not others.”

Most of his analysis is focused on a continuum of educational attainment, and his findings are focused on trends that accelerate (or do not) with each year of increased education on top of seven years of total education. While the trends thus start before someone would reach higher education, Schwadel said in an email interview that the trends continue through higher education.

On some matters, his findings fit the stereotype. The more education one has, the less likely one is to hold “exclusivist religious viewpoints” (a belief in a single faith that is better than all others) and to believe that the Bible is the literal truth.

But Schwadel writes that, despite those findings, “the effects of education on religion are more complex than previous research suggests”. Among those findings:

• More education does not decrease the odds that an American will believe in God or the afterlife

• More education “positively affects” religious participation and the role of religion (including devotional activities) in daily life

• More education seems to increase the odds that one will switch religious affiliations (especially to a mainline Protestant denomination), but does not correlate with disaffiliation with religious faiths.

The research goes beyond statements that would be easy for respondents to affirm without thinking about their actual life activities. For instance, the survey found modest increases in the odds, with more education, of regularly engaging in prayer and in reading the Bible. And the survey found that the more education one has, the more likely one is to have attended a religious service in the previous seven days – and it reveals an even larger increase in the odds of having done volunteer work for a religious group.

In the interview, Professor Schwadel said that the results might surprise many people, but that perhaps they should not.

“The view that higher ed is antithetical to religion, or at least certain forms of religion, has been around for a long time,” he said. But there is considerable evidence that higher education isn’t as hostile to religion as many think, and that many academics hold religious beliefs themselves, and welcome religious groups on campus.”

The belief that more education yields less faith is also a result of a limited definition of religion, Professor Schwadel continued. “Are more highly educated people less likely to hold certain beliefs, such as the Bible being the literal word of God? Yes. Does this mean that more highly educated Americans are less religious? Well, if you define religion as literal belief in the Bible, then yes. If you define religion as attending services, however, then the highly educated appear to be more religious. The main point is, it all depends on how you define ‘religious’,” he said.

Asked how his own views on religion might be reflected by the findings, Professor Schwadel declined to comment. “I do not feel that my personal religious views are relevant to the research,” he said. “The results are based purely on regression models using the General Social Survey. I try hard to keep my personal views out of the research.”

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